I was walking through the streets of Washington, DC the other day and saw something really creepy.
A symbol for organisms that have a tremendous impact on our day-to-day lives, yet no one really knows what they do. They’re so frightening, focusing on them can easily divert our attention from what’s most important. In fact, they’re so repulsive and distracting, I think I’ll block them out of the photograph.
OK. Now you can better concentrate on the cartoonish symbols parked in front of the Capital. They’re also meant to creep us out. They represent Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Here’s a closer look.
These cars are part of a campaign to encourage Congress to pass GMO labeling laws and give consumers the right to know when they are buying and consuming foods that include genetically modified ingredients.
When it comes to GMOs, the vast majority of the world’s population fall in one of two camps. They’re either:
- Blissfully ignorant, or
- Not blissful but still ignorant because they’re convinced that our dependence on GMOs will likely cause a situation such as this:
Recently, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released the most thorough review to date concerning the effects of GMOs in all aspects of our lives.
If you want the quick take, the panel of twenty experts that make up the NAS said that GMOs are safe. They are also good for consumers, farmers and the environment. However, many of the hoped-for advantages of GMOs have not yet come to fruition and the technology is evolving so quickly, we should not allow that pace to outrun our ability to regulate them. That’s the crux of the report.
Fast forward 1500 words and this post provides more background on GMOs, the NAS report and the reaction of stakeholders. This post also probably contains many irrelevant tangents but I can’t be sure because that’s just how I think so it all seems relevant to me.
First, let’s establish…
What the Heck are GMOs?
That turns out to be a more difficult question than it should be. GMOs are an evolving technology. The definition is dynamic. Saying all GMOs are bad because of a few bad, ahem, apples, is like saying all Health Coaches are oddly obsessed with superheroes because there’s one health coach who seems to be that way.
The World Health Organization defines GMOs as plants or creature whose:
“genetic material (“DNA”) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally.”
It’s a broad definition that includes some seemingly mild events such as Gregor Mendel’s 19th-century bean experiments and the breeding of mules (Mild? Tell that to the poor mare).
It’s also a definition that the promoter’s of GMOs exploit to create a false equivalency between low-tech, time-tested gene manipulation (e.g., cross-pollination) and high-tech forms like gene splicing. To get around this ambiguity, some refer to the “scarier” version of GMOs as Genetically Engineered. This distinction becomes more important as we dig into the actual NAS report.
Why Do People Care About GMOs?
Promoters of GMOs talk about their ability to solve world hunger. Biotech firms research, develop and release new versions of plants that are pest and weed resistant. The result is more crops with fewer chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) and other resources (energy).
Another feature is the ability to create foods that contain essential nutrients that are otherwise hard to distribute. Golden rice, for example, is engineered to include Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiencies are blamed for blindness and even death of over 600,000 children under 5 each year.
It’s important to note that many of the proponents of GMOs also stand to gain the most from their proliferation. They lower costs and, because many GMO products are protected by intellectual property law, they increase profit margins.
The biggest argument against GMOs revolves around what we don’t know and the law of unintended consequences. These consequences include the potential to:
- Accelerate the evolution of pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant herbs.
- Produce new allergens or substances that could encourage the growth of tumors or mutations.
- Reduce biodiversity. GMO products are uniform in their genetic code. When farmers depend on GMOs, the more-diverse conventional strains languish and may disappear.
- Create evil crime-of-nature monstrosities such as:
or whatever this sequence of emojis means:
Also, since many GMOs have intellectual property protection, some feel they lead to exploitation of farmers by running up prices due to controlled supply. Furthermore, there are anecdotal tales about GMO companies suing farmers whose crops are inadvertently contaminated with the genes of a neighboring farm’s patented and proprietary seeds. However, I can’t find any actual proof that Monsanto or anyone else has ever actually sued for this. Read this if you want to start your own investigation.
Which side is right? That’s exactly what the NAS report is intended to answer. But before we get into that, do you know what’s scarier than GMOs? Even scarier than Congress?
Davey H regaling us with another story about his past that he somehow tries to make relevant to what you really want to know.
A Story That Has Nothing to do with GMOs
“Big Data” is one of those technology buzzwords designed to make something we’ve been doing for years sound new and worthy of lots of corporate investment.
Since the dawn of the information age, the rate of data created and stored by humanity has grown logarithmically (i.e., really fast). So a bunch of us nerds started a company and we created technology that could analyze mountains of health and medical records to solve all sorts of problems from inaccurate billing to curing cancer. When we were acquired, the buyer already had technology in house that took a different approach to achieve the same results but it needed more time to mature. Our technology was market ready and helping some of the largest healthcare systems in the country.
Soon after the acquisition, the new company asked me to lead a face-off between the two technologies. This may seem like an odd request given that I was the leader of one of these teams but the new company knew what I explained in my previous post about sugar. I would take on this task dispassionately and with neutrality (i.e., I’m wishy-washy).
So I found two researchers who didn’t have an ax to grind in either camp and we spent several months investigating, testing and analyzing the two technologies until we had a fifty-page report of our findings. Before releasing that report to the executive team we allowed the two competing teams to take a look and respond with any concerns.
My team went ballistic and complained that in an attempt to seem unbiased I issued a report that was favorable to the other team. Meanwhile, the manager of the of the other team reported me to the company executives with a claim that I obviously favored my own team.
I got called in front of the executives and got an earful. My response?
“You know how I know we issued an unbiased report? Each team is claiming I’m favoring the other.”
TRANSLATION: Haters gonna hate.
And after looking at the results of the NAS analysis on GMOs and the resulting backlash, I know exactly how they feel.
Results of the NAS Analysis of GMOs
To put the results in better perspective, let’s look at what the report says in response to the claims made by both sides of the GMO debate.
Can GMOs Solve World Hunger?
According to the report, GMOs can help solve world hunger but they haven’t demonstrated their ability to do so yet. But, even if they do eventually increase crop yields, this would only be a small part of the solution as we’d still have all the existing logistical (e.g., distribution, storage) and political (e.g., wars, corruption) challenges.
So far, we’ve seen greater productivity gains to date from conventional forms of breeding than we have from the use of GMOs. But still the scientists who authored the report see far more future potential through the use of GMOs.
OK, GMOs haven’t done much about increasing quantity but what about increasing quality by producing more nutritious foods? In the lab, the results are irrefutably positive. In real life, we still don’t know.
Remember Golden Rice, the Vitamin A enriched grain that could save hundreds of thousands of children from blindness and premature death? It’s been around for 15 years. Thanks to its inventor, Ingo Potrykus, its seed is available for free to anyone in need. However, anti-GMO organizations, such as Greenpeace have been effective in blocking its use. They do so not because of any known or presumed dangers, but because of fears of the slippery slope and eventual unleashing of “Frankenfoods.”
SUMMARY:GMOs can be part of the solution to world hunger but they haven’t been one yet.
Are GMOs Good for Business?
The GMO industry is not very transparent about this but all signs point to yes. Monsanto, the best-known manufacturer of GMO seeds has seen a 20% uptick in their GMO business over the last five years.
Farmers are the other stakeholders in the business of GMOs and while it’s easier to prove how they fare, it’s harder to come up with a conclusion. Farmers who can afford genetically modified seeds reap all the benefits of reduced pesticide and herbicide use. That lowers costs, is better for soil, and sometimes reduces the farmer’s exposure to harmful chemicals. All good.
Small and low-income farms see a different picture as they can’t afford access to the seeds nor can they conform to the tight usage restrictions required by the manufacturers. Essentially they lose their ability to compete and this threatens access to food in the places that are at greatest risk of hunger.
SUMMARY:GMOs are good for the manufacturers of GMO products. Among farmers, there are winners and losers.
What About the Unintended Consequences of GMOs (e.g. health risks, vegetables with teeth)?
Perhaps the most controversial conclusion in the report is the one that says that there is no “substantiated” evidence that GMOs damage our health or the environment. GMO corn, soy, canola and cotton are all real versions of corn, soy, canola and cotton. This claim is based on the review of hundreds of studies that looked at potential links to cancer, obesity, digestive issues, kidney diseases and allergies. The report notes that GMOs have been part of the American diet for decades while Europeans have been able to avoid them. However, the trends in all potential negative side effects are virtually the same in both locations when controlled for all other factors other than GMOs.
But the NAS doesn’t give GMOs a free pass in perpetuity. First, they concede that the introduction of new genetic combinations could introduce substances that can cause allergies.
Second they acknowledge the existence of evolution and that the creation of herbicide-resistant crops can lead to superweeds. I get it, the idea of superweed may be attractive to some. But, it’s not really what those people think.
Finally, the report recommends that regulations for GMOs be strengthened and evolve with the times. Genetic engineering is not a static science. Progress marches on. New technologies such as CRISPR (the very sound of which makes me a little peckish) put gene editing tools in the hands of every college freshman (maybe THAT kind of Superweed is a possibility). Furthermore, careless use of GMOs in the field could lead to those pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant herbs (NO! Dang it! Not THAT kind!). The law of unintended consequences remains an issue.
The NAS takes a milquetoast (not crispy) position on one subset of regulations, GMO labeling and the consumer’s right-to-know. They limit the discussion to acknowledgement that there is a debate about whether to label GMO products and that the debate should be allowed to play out.
SUMMARY:GMOs have introduced no new dangers to date but we must remain watchful for the possibility in the future.
Reactions to the NAS Report on GMOs
Skip this part if you read my tangent on the Big Data Face-Off because it told you what you need to know.
Even before the report came out, consumer and environmental advocacy groups decried the results and claimed the panel of experts were in the pocket of Big Seed. Their point is debatable. The report itself, however, received no industry financing. On the positive side, some of these organizations gave tacit approval of the statements urging greater transparency through regulation.
Meanwhile, industry was pleased that they got yet another safety ribbon. But, they were less happy with the call for better regulation and the conclusion that GMOs have done nothing to improve productivity.
So There You Have It
That is the Karma Sense review of the NAS report on GMOs. While it no doubt is stilted by my own opinion, the only thing missing is my personal reaction and recommendations. But this post was scary enough and I don’t want to give you nightmares. I’ll cover that in my next post.
Meanwhile, if there is a subject you would like me to take on, contact me and let’s talk.